Soon after September 11, the news media stepped up its coverage of the plight of Martin and Gracia Burnham, the missionary couple captured and held hostage in the Philippine jungle by terrorists with ties to Osama Bin Laden. After a year of captivity, and a violent rescue that resulted in Martin's death, the world watched Gracia Burnham return home in June 2002 with a bullet wound in the leg and amazing composure.
Gracia reflects on the lessons and spiritual truths she learned in the jungle and how they apply to anyone's life. She offers the battle-tested wisdom of a woman who lived her greatest nightmare and came through it more convinced of God's grace than ever before.
Below, is an excerpt of Gracia Burnham's "To Fly Again." Watch her story on Dateline Sunday, May 28, 7 p.m.
There’s something slightly odd about me writing a book on handling upheaval in your life— when my life still isn’t all that well put together. Whenever I go out to speak these days, I cringe when people come up afterward and gush, “I admire you so much! You are such a special person!” I want to look behind me and see whom they could possibly be talking about.
One day after I’d gotten all dressed up for a speaking engagement— you know, heels and everything—I headed to the van and reached for the door handle. Peering inside... I thought a bomb had gone off. Trash was everywhere. I decided it wouldn’t do for Mrs. Featured Speaker to show up in such a messy vehicle.
I grabbed a box from the garage and began throwing stuff into it: empty McDonald’s cups, a plate and fork with dried food on it, one of the kids’ change of clothes, even some crayons (my kids are long past the crayon age—what were those doing in there?!). I would have used the minivac on the floor to get the rest of the dirt only I knew I couldn’t find it in the messy garage, and I was out of time anyway.
So I just drove away and made it to the church on time, where I was greeted with warm words of admiration. If they only knew.
But here and there along the way over the past year or two, I’ve gleaned some fresh understanding of what’s really important in life, and what is secondary. I’ve had time to reflect on the meaning of my jungle ordeal, and how it applies to the stresses other people are going through. God has been teaching me some perspectives that perhaps make this book worthwhile after all.
A lot of his teaching seems to come while I’m driving—which can be dangerous. It’s about the only time I can sit still and concentrate for an extended period. I often have to pull over into a parking lot or a gas station to write for a while.
Sometimes when I get home and look at the notes I’ve scribbled, they make no sense. But other times, they spark more ideas, and some are included in this book.
One night, my oldest son, Jeff, simply had to get to an auto repair shop before it closed. I had just arrived home and was getting a bowl of chili for myself.
“Can I just eat this chili first?” I asked him.
“No, no, Mom—we gotta go!” he urged. “You follow me, so you can bring me back after I drop my car off.”
I trudged out to the van and began following him down the road, chili bowl in one hand. All of a sudden, I had this great thought for the book!
In that moment, I realized something. Gracia, you cannot keep following Jeff while eating a bowl of chili and recording your thoughts at the same time. You’re just going to have to let the thought go.
So that’s what happened. I never got to write down my brainstorm, and it’s lost forever. The world will never know how brilliant it was!
But other thoughts have been captured. As you read this book, I hope you don’t think I’m preaching at you, or that I have it all together. I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t. And my kids would second that. I’m just a person with a unique story whom the Lord has graced over and over again.
God knows all about the crosswinds that batter our lives—yours and mine—tossing us, like a fragile aircraft, into a tailspin. He calmly guides our shaky hands on the stick, showing us how to level out again and keep flying safely. We won’t crash after all.
I started this book with fear and trembling. As I wrote, it helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.
The Guarantee Nobody Wants
If you could put the history of your life onto a computer screen, highlight just one day, and then punch Delete, which day would you choose? Is there a certain twenty-four- hour period that you wish had never happened?
Some people would point to the Saturday night of a car accident. Some, like my friends at the cancer support center, would say a certain doctor’s appointment. Others, tragically, might select their wedding day. For me, obviously, it would be May 27, 2001—the Sunday that Martin and I were captured.
While we fantasize about what life might have been like without our difficult junctures, the truth is that these intersections are not abnormal. Jesus told his disciples at the close of their final Passover evening together: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33). He didn’t say “may” or “might” or “could” or “possibly” or any other tentative word. He said, flat out, you will have trouble. Guaranteed. It’s going to happen.
Yes, he followed immediately with a brighter encouragement: “But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” I will talk a bit later about what that means. But for now, let us accept the reality that bad things are going to happen to us, if they haven’t already.
# # # # #
I didn’t really understand that for the first forty-two years of my life. I was born into a loving family, had lots of friends growing up, became a believer in the Lord Jesus at an early age, was popular in high school and college, and finally married a terrific guy who had an incredible gift of piloting airplanes. Martin was no ordinary flyboy. He could put a loaded Cessna down on the exact spot he wanted in a small jungle clearing and get the plane stopped in the next few hundred feet. People were amazed at his talent.
Plus, he loved people. That’s what made him want to use his piloting skills to make a difference in this world.
So we packed up and left the American dream to go to a distant country where Martin flew food, medicine, fuel for generators, and other cargo—including people—into some of the most primitive places in the world. Missionary families were living in remote villages, learning obscure languages, and telling poor tribal people that they didn’t have to keep sacrificing their livestock to the spirits of their dead ancestors. Instead, a loving God had made a way to rescue them from their sin and unhappiness. He had sent his perfect Son, Jesus, to pay the penalty for all our sins, so we could have a relationship with a holy God.
And Martin’s role in getting that message across was to fly.
Meanwhile, what was my role? What talents had God given me?
Well, I do like to talk! That’s about it. Oh—and I can make a halfway decent pizza.
So God took what I had and put it to use. I became the radio operator for our mission, where I could sit at a small table with a microphone and do a lot of talking. I called every missionary in the jungle twice a day to take their grocery orders, relay messages to town, schedule flights, and just encourage them. It was great. And when the missionaries would come to our center for a break, I made sure they had a comfortable bed to sleep in, plus an invitation to come over to our place that evening for a movie and . . . pizza, of course.
We did this for sixteen years and loved it. We had three children along the way. They grew up loving the Philippines as much as we did.
Then came the day when Martin needed to go to another island to fill in for a pilot whose father had died back in the States. I opted to go with him, and as a special treat, I arranged for us to celebrate our anniversary with just twenty-four hours at Dos Palmas. The rest of the story, you already know.
# # # # #
That was the point where my “easy” life changed. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, if I had taken John 16:33 seriously. But I had not. I thought the Burnham family was on a roll that would last our entire lives. I hadn’t paid attention to the guarantee.
The truth is, trials and trouble and tribulation come to us all. Perhaps you’ve felt the pain of being misunderstood by family members or the ache of depression. Maybe you’ve had to face the loss of a job, or the realization that you’re unloved, or not as attractive in the social marketplace as other people with better-looking bodies, silkier hair, more perfect teeth. Perhaps you’ve been treated unfairly, or been rejected for no valid reason. Every one of these can be as much a problem as being held at gunpoint by terrorists. Everyone’s trial is unique and real.
And the stress goes on and on, with no end in sight. I read somewhere that Noah and his family endured 377 days on the ark during the great Flood: If you add up all the time they waited for the rain to start, the actual 40 days and nights of downpour, and the long period during which the water receded and the ground dried enough for them to disembark, the number comes to 377. That struck me, because that is almost precisely how long Martin and I were in captivity.
I wonder if Mrs. Noah ever said to her husband, “Are we ever going to get out of here? The stench is overwhelming me. We’re going to be stuck on this boat with these animals forever.”
When windstorms came along and rocked them until they were seasick, did they fear for their life? What did Noah say then?
If you carefully read the Lord’s instructions to Noah in Genesis 6 and 7, you’ll discover that God talks a lot about going into the ark to avoid drowning. He says nothing about Noah and his family eventually getting out ofthe ark. Perhaps that was implied; I can’t say. Did they worry that they might be floating forever? What if their food for the animals ran out? What if they themselves eventually ran out of food? What then?
“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows,” said Jesus—but then he continued with the offsetting advice to “take heart, because I have overcome the world.” In the midst of our trouble, there is a good thing: He has conquered all.
Many Christians read this verse and come to a false conclusion: They expect Jesus to shield them from the world’s abundance of trials. They think, perhaps wistfully, that the second part of the verse negates the first half. My experience tells me that this is not true.
In fact, it wasn’t true even for Jesus himself. He made this statement, then promptly stood up, walked out the door into the nighttime air, and headed for the Cross. Less than fifteen hours later, he was bleeding profusely and gasping for breath on a Roman torture apparatus. This was “overcoming the world”? How so?
What he meant was that by his death, he would overcome the curse of sin, death, and hell. He would put in motion the means of redemption for us all. His sacrifice would be enough to free us from eternal condemnation. His ultimate victory over Satan would be assured.
Even before that takes place at the end of time, the promise of Jesus that night long ago means two things to us:
- He will go through our trials alongside us.
- We will go to heaven to be with him when we die.
As a result, we are never alone. So often as I lay on the jungle floor at night unsuccessfully trying to get comfortable enough to sleep, I felt alone. I was stinky and dirty; there was no place to take a bath; my hair was a disaster; I had no clean clothes to put on the next morning; I felt more like an animal than a human being. But I was never alone. Christ was right there with me.
In John 14:27 Jesus told his disciples, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give isn’t like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”
The end result of his presence in our lives is a deep and lasting peace. Unlike worldly peace, which is usually defined only as the absence of conflict, this peace is confident assurance in any circumstance. Another Scripture speaks about how to “experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
The trouble is guaranteed. But so is the peace.
# # # # #
The apostle Paul, whom the whole Christian world reveres as a huge success, once made a list of all the things that had gone wrong during his ministry. He included it in his second letter to the Corinthian church, chapter 11, verses 24-33:
- Five beatings with a lash
- Three beatings with a rod
- One bludgeoning with stones until he blacked out
- Three shipwrecks
- Twenty-four hours in open water trying to stay afloat
- Having to cross flooded rivers
- Being chased by various bandits
- Being undermined by “false brothers”
- Lack of sleep
- Hunger and thirst
- Inadequate clothing in the cold
- Immature and eccentric churches to oversee
- Having to run for his life from the arresting authorities
And we call this man a great apostle! We blithely read his hair-raising episodes and hail him as a wonderful first-century church leader.
If he were with us today, he would affirm what Jesus said in John 15:20-21, “Do you remember what I told you? ‘A servant is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you! The people of the world will hate you because you belong to me, for they don’t know God who sent me.”
This prediction applies not only to Paul’s time but to ours as well. Christians learn to persevere in the midst of problems, not in their absence.
# # # # #
I saw a poster at church one Sunday advertising that the chorale from Calvary Bible College, my alma mater, would be coming to a nearby church soon. I had sung in that choir long ago; in fact, it was the excellence of their music that first drew me, as a high school student, to want to attend that college.
They would be singing on a Sunday night. My kids and I decided to skip the evening church service we normally attended and drove an hour or so up the road to hear the choir. As we entered the church, I was pleased to see some old friends who had stayed attached to the college as I had. We greeted each other and then soon found a place to sit near the front, on the right side.
The forty or so singers filed onto the risers and began their concert. The quality was excellent. I was thoroughly enjoying it, and so were my kids.
In time they came to the familiar spiritual “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” I noticed people’s shoulders bobbing along to the tune and rhythm—until all of a sudden, I zeroed in on the lyrics:
“Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?
Then why not ev-e-ry man?”
I froze in my seat. Yeah—why not? I thought. God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den. Why didn’t he deliver Martin from the jungle terrorists?
The original lyrics were no doubt meant as an uplifting encouragement: In light of the great things God did for Daniel, look what he can do for you. But for me, the words raised a perplexing dilemma.
For the next three songs or so, I didn’t hear a note. I was too consumed with processing this question in my mind. There in the pew, I opened my Bible to Hebrews 11 and began to read:
By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. Women received their loved ones back again from death. (verses 33-35a)
I caught my breath at that last sentence. Wouldn’t that have been a wonderful reversal for our family? However, it had not happened. I kept reading:
But others trusted God and were tortured, preferring to die rather than turn from God and be free. They placed their hope in the resurrection to a better life. Some were mocked, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in dungeons. Some died by stoning, and some were sawed in half; others were killed with the sword. Some went about in skins of sheep and goats, hungry and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world. They wandered over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
All of these people we have mentioned received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had far better things in mind for us that would also benefit them, for they can’t receive the prize at the end of the race until we finish the race. (verses 35b-40)
Soon I was jotting notes in my notebook, while the concert rolled on. At least Martin didn’t die horribly, in one of the ways mentioned in the passage. He was shot in the chest and quickly lost consciousness as his blood pressure plummeted. He certainly wasn’t tortured or taunted with a demand to renounce Christ. I was grateful for that much.
People today call Martin a martyr for Christ, and I’m never quite sure what to think about that. Neither he nor I was targeted because we were Christians; we just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as a band of kidnappers were rounding up their bargaining chips. Meanwhile, all over the world, other Christians in our time are being hounded, harassed, and killed for their faith.
Even so, the loss of Martin was a huge sorrow for me. It certainly fulfilled the pledge that difficulty would come my way. And yet, as the Scripture says, “God had far better things in mind for us.” He is sovereign. He can choose the ending of a person’s life as he sees fit. And he can be glorified in any number of ways.
I closed my Bible and notebook to resume listening to the concert. As I drove my kids home that night, I wasn’t quite as talkative as I had been on the way to the church. I was thinking about the fact that the peacefulness and security we currently enjoy is not promised forever. But whatever the future brings, the Christ who went to the Cross will be with us to sustain and to redeem. As Hebrews 13 reminds us:
God has said,
“I will never fail you.
I will never forsake you.”
That is why we can say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper,
so I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?” (verses 5-6)
*Excerpted with permission from Tyndale Publishers.